Were the Pittsburgh Steelers destined to draft a running back this year? It’s hard to say for sure after the fact but when it comes to the one they did draft in the fourth-round this past Friday, Anthony McFarland Jr. out of Maryland, it sure seems like he might have been the only one they had eyes for.
In his Wednesday interview on 93.7 The Fan, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was essentially asked if McFarland can potentially be an every-down running back for the Steelers, or if maybe he’ll ultimately be used mostly in different and new offensive wrinkles that Matt Canada, the team’s new quarterbacks coach, might now interject into the offense due to him being Maryland’s offensive coordinator in 2018.
“You know, I think it’s natural to make the association with Coach [Matt] Canada and Anthony because Anthony had a nice year with Matt down at Maryland,” Colbert said. “And that’s great, but when we looked at him, again, we recognized that talent in 2018 when he wasn’t drafted eligible. You know, our people went in and came back and said, ‘Hey, they got a nice one coming up at Maryland.’ So, you always keep your eyes open. And of course, we scouted him this year. He came out a couple of years early and that was his decision. He didn’t have a great year in 2019 because of an ankle issue, but the one thing we know is he can give us a different dimension to our backfield combination because of his speed and his big play ability, which he did on a big stage against a really good defense at Ohio State.
“So, there’s plenty of positives to like about the young man and again, what piece he’ll be, we won’t know until we get into training camp, et cetera. But we do know that the piece that he can give us is something we’d like to add to the group we have.”
The Steelers drafted two players out Maryland this year in McFarland and safety Antoine Brooks Jr. and in retrospect, that’s probably not a huge surprise considering how easy it is to connect the dots back to that school. Not only was Canada the offensive coordinator and the late season interim head coach at Maryland in 2018, the son of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Dino Tomlin, also plays for the Terrapins.
Back to McFarland. while diminutive at 5081, 208-pounds, he’s built a lot more like former Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman than he is two previous smallish Steelers running backs, Chris Rainey and Dri Archer. McFarland showed in his two seasons art Maryland that he can run both inside and outside the tackles. Additionally, he was used in quite a few short yardage situations and in the passing game as well. Maryland head coach Mike Locksley vouched for his former player having the ability to be more than just gimmicky-type player or change of pace running back with the Steelers during his recent interview on 93.7 The Fan.
“You know, I wouldn’t even just limit it to that, man,” Locksley said regarding being asked if McFarland can be used initially as reverse or screen pass player in his rookie season with the Steelers. “This kid has shown that when he gets the ball enough and he gets his touches, regardless whether it’s him in a slot, popping out of the backfield to the slot, handing him outside zones, this year he showed me he was capable of running inside the tackles. I really don’t think he’s limited to just that. He’s an explosive playmaker that, as an offensive coordinator, he’s a guy that I would want to get the ball to 10 to 15 times a game, at least early on. And just usually you get him enough touches, one of those things is going to the house.”
McFarland took several handoffs to the house during his college career with a few of those coming against Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State in 2018. Because of that big game against Ohio State in 2018, Locksley was asked if the tape from that game jumped out at the Steelers scouts, Colbert and Tomlin when they all came to Maryland to take a deeper look at the young running back.
“Yeah, I know that’s the signature game for him that I think showed against high level competition what he’s capable of, but he consistently, when he was healthy, made plays like that,” Locksley said. “I mean, the kid, you know, not a real big guy, but when you take the pads off, he’s not a small guy, either. Maybe doesn’t have the length that some of the backs has, but I’m just telling you, he’s a guy that in space is tough to get down. But I do think the Ohio State game is kind of the signature game. It was against high level competition and he made a ton of plays in that game.
Of the Steelers six draft picks this year, McFarland perhaps has the best chance at seeing the most playing time outside of special teams snaps. He’s likely to see five to 10 offensive snaps per game early on in his rookie season with a chance for his playing time to grow throughout the year. Might McFarland wind up winning the 2020 Joe Greene Award as the Steelers top rookie? I dint think we can totally discount the possibility of that as we sit here less than one week removed from McFarland’s selection in the fourth-round of the draft.
As for McFarland possibly being destined to be drafted by the Steelers this year, it’s hard to think otherwise. After all, the Steelers bypassed a chance to draft J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers in the second-round. Heck, he was the 12th overall running back selected in this year’s draft and only 16 in total were selected.